Hope is planting seeds for trees under which you will never sit
by Gina McGuire and Susan Kaye Quinn
I’m the creative manager of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, the climate fiction short story contest out of Grist Magazine. Every year we ask fiction writers across the globe to envision a green, clean and just future. The tales they tell help expand our ability to imagine a better planet. This year on October 4, we published twelve stories. And just under 600 people from 85 countries submitted stories. I love all the stories because they elevate diverse voices and bring new perspectives to the increasingly vital genre of climate fiction.
Today in collaboration with the Climate Fiction Writers League we have a discussion between Gina McGuire, the second place winner for By the Skin of Your Teeth and Susan Kaye Quinn, the third place winner for Seven Sisters. Read the previous conversation between finalists Nadine Tomlinson and Akhim Alexis here.
I hope you enjoy their conversation as much as I did, read their stories, and all of the others.
- Tory Stephens - Creative Manager - Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors
Gina McGuire: Susan, I love this idea of hope and holding onto hope, even in the darkest of times and futures. I think this is especially important within climate fiction. Can you tell me a little bit about how hope feeds into your writing craft, into how you build your characters and their circumstances? How do you hang onto hope as a climate fiction author?
Susan Kaye Quinn: Hey Gina! I’m so excited to chat with you!
Hope is a critically central part of my climate fiction. When people are stressed or overwhelmed, as seems unavoidable these days but especially as the climate crisis worsens, the part of the brain that’s capable of imagination literally shuts down. In part, this is survival: something is wrong, we can’t afford to think of the future, we need to fix what’s right in front of us. But this short-circuits our ability to lift our eyes to the horizon and see the long-term problems that need solving. Ironically, the more dire those long-term problems, the more our brains shut down the part needed to imagine solutions. I feel this myself, as a writer, and I have to deliberately carve out a hopeful mental space in order to create. For readers, I believe a hopeful story—one that shows some solutions already enacted while characters grapple with ongoing problems—is a key part of lifting the short-circuit, enabling the imaginative parts of their brains again. My hope (!) is that this empowers them to escape the doom-cycle and take action.
Hope is such a slippery word, meaning so many different things. Sometimes people conflate it with optimism. “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well,” Czech dissident, writer and statesman Václav Havel said, “but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” Hope is planting seeds for trees under which you will never sit.
For me, hope isn’t really a mindset I try to hang onto—I have a deep belief that hope is a tool I can choose to wield. It’s a choice to do something when I may never know if it will make a difference… I only know it might. Actions like that are incredibly powerful to witness, even if only in a story. (“Only”… as if stories aren’t our most powerful means of communication.)
If I tell you that lead was eliminated from gasoline largely because a small group of mothers in the UK read studies about the terrible effects of lead on their children, then organized and convinced their local government to ban leaded gasoline… and that eventually cascaded a series of events that resulted in near world-wide bans… you now have an image of the power of local activism. In my stories, I try to draw future pictures like that, portraying a world where some successes have already been gained, even as there’s more to be done. If I can shine a light on future successes for readers, that (hopefully!) will help them imagine even more future solutions.
I loved your story, By the Skin of Your Teeth, which was so wonderfully anchored in the culture of Hawaiʻi and the traditional practices of kahu manō (shark guardianships). You are reaching to the past and bringing forward solutions, ways of living. How does connecting to Indigenous histories and practices inform the stories you tell? Especially when you’re speaking to readers who may not be familiar with those histories? What do you think is the power that traditional practices have, not just for informing actual future solutions, but in changing how readers think about the possibilities?
Gina: Thank you for those kind words about the story! I think what I love about exploring Indigenous histories, and in this case, the practices of my own ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiian) peoples, is that they provide connecting points between past and present, linkages that reside within our ancestors and thereby within us, just waiting to be called on. That are still contemporary. I share a quote from Nālani Wilson-Hokowhitu and Manulani Meyer, who write that our ancestors’ bones, buried in the land “establish our place to stand tall, our place from which to speak, protect, defend, and love.” I hope to share that sentiment with readers and encourage them to consider and call on their own ancestors, Indigenous or not, as sources of inspiration and love. I think, particularly in science fiction, the tendency is to look forward, to look for new technologies and other universes as answers to some of our most pressing problems. On the other hand, one of the lessons I’ve learned from my time within communities of diverse Indigenous friends and family is the importance of asking of and leaning on the ancestral realm. The flowers, the branches, can’t grow without the roots intact and I try to begin there in my writing.
As the roots— ancestral knowledge, spirit, and practices have the potential to lead the way within climate solutions. Indigenous worlds have continued to re-root, re-blossom despite truly apocalyptic happenings to ways of life, to homelands. The mana (spirit, energy) of these ancestors is what allows and will continue to allow us to be resilient in the dramatic changes that we are facing. I hope that when readers encounter stories that give attention to the practices and values of ancestors that it, maybe in some small way, will impact how readers think about their own roles and potentialities. What does a future that honors our ancestors look like? How would/does it change the way that we act, as individuals? How can culture shape our relationships to other living beings in care-based modalities?
To that end, when I’m editing a story and considering the extent to which I’m going to include Indigenous languages and practices (within all of my published works to this point, these have been ʻŌiwi), I give a lot of thought as to how this will be received by folks that might not be familiar with these ways of thinking and doing. How willing is the average reader to put in the necessary work to appreciate a different language? To consider the extra layers of meaning that might be held within the Indigenous world? What is my duty to protect cultural practices, like kahu manō, that are not, and at no point in history, were meant for everyone, while at the same time bringing these meanings and truths to a body of literature that has largely passed over the true stories of Indigenous and in particular, Pacific Island worlds?
You write so beautifully about ancestral presence and duty within your writing. I’m recalling the line in Seven Sisters, “Just one harvest, she promised the ghosts…” SO juicy! Your work positions family as a central element and as a critical element in characters’ decisions and actions. Can you speak to this? Within Seven Sisters there’s a lot of back and forth on what is family, who can be family… where do you see the role of blood connections, of ancestral connections but also of extended families and our duties to those beyond our immediate communities within the space of climate solutions? Your work calls into light refugee communities— how do you view your writing as a home for advocacy and attention in this space?
Susan: I believe we’re in the midst of a massive cultural shift (in the US at least) in how we comprise families and familial connections, and a lot of this shift is flying under the radar of public awareness. The idea of “found family” has deep roots in fiction (as in queer communities and marginalized ones), but I look around and see it taking root in this largely unseen shift, manifesting in a number of ways. This has intrigued me and shows up in a lot of my stories. In my hopepunk climate fiction series, Nothing is Promised, there are four novels, each with a different main character, who explore four different manifestations of family—the first one includes a “cooperative” type community as seen in Seven Sisters, where members of the family choose one another, but then have the benefit (and duties of care) of legal recognition of that family structure. Marriage and children might exist inside that structure, but who you have sex with isn’t the backbone of the structure (as it is currently with our focus on granting legal family status to nuclear families).
Susan: So, what is this cultural shift? What is driving it? Where are we heading in the future? The answers to that speak to the excellent questions you’ve asked about the roles of blood connections, ancestral connections, extended families, immediate communities, and then refugees who come in from ostensibly very different cultural backgrounds. On the one hand, I think we grapple openly with these questions in cultural flashpoints like whether gay marriage should be legal (it should) and how many immigrants should be allowed into the country (a lot more than now, in my opinion). But the cultural shifts that (largely) fly under the radar include record numbers of young people moving back to live with their parents, extended “adolescence” as young people delay traditional markers of adulthood, people of all ages delaying or forgoing marriage or children, groups of people opting to live together or constructing core social groups that are based on friendship rather than the “romantic ideal” of the nuclear family (which is itself a fairly recent invention). Then there’s the epidemic of loneliness, the mass migration to cities (now to suburbs with pandemic-spurred work-from-home), and the widespread familial estrangement that’s happening as the culture quickly shifts values across generations. Studies show that 27% of people in America experience estrangement from someone in their family that they or the family member initiates. That’s a huge change in the foundational structural unit of our society that’s hardly discussed.
The rise of social media is an accelerator to all of this.
What is happening here? And how can we use stories to understand it? I’m speaking of Western culture, especially in America, because that’s the culture I live inside and observe, but we’re also a global world now, and I see ripples of this everywhere. In the 21st Century, we humans tend to live in the moment and have a pretty radical disconnection from the past. Some of us don’t want to see how history informs the present, how we’re connected through generational trauma, the legacy of red lining, and a hundred other ways, to the culture and practices of our ancestors, for good and less so. But many of us are also seeking more rootedness, not less. We’re coming to understand, collectively and often without public acknowledgement, that those connections have incredible power, that we need mutual aid networks of every kind just to survive, and that we were never meant to fly alone. In some ways, this is a wholesale rejection of the nuclear family and its atomizing effects on society—some of the family patterns of today are more similar to those a hundred years ago, as multiple generations in multiple configurations choose to live together again. This is sometimes driven by economic necessity, but not always.
In the future, I see lower birth rates, massive climate migration, and a reconfiguration of family so profound that it will, of necessity, be reflected in the legal structures of our societies. The hallmark of this change will be the widespread acceptance of its diversity, often without fanfare (even as it is violently rejected by some). Some of us will reach back for ancestral connections, strengthening Indigenous societies and living those cultural values in a visible way that enriches the whole of society. Some will break connections to toxic pasts and form new ones in their place. Still others will seek a mythical past culture that reinforces their structural power (this is the toxic version of this impulse for rootedness). Collectively, we will seek out and strengthen the connections that build the resilience we need to survive the 21st Century. And this will all happen in the context of a world that continues to heat and change, even as we’re trying to undo the carbon sins of the past.
I think of my optimistic climate fiction as a way to give space to positive solutions, not just in energy or climate mitigation, but in the very fabric of our family structures. So much change will be needed, and I feel strongly that we need more stories that show positive adaptation. I want to be part of writing those stories.
I see stories like yours, Gina, as a gift not just to people who share the often-overlooked cultural history within the stories, but especially for those who don’t (or have been disconnected from their past). I love how you focus on “care-based modalities.” Care work is the essential glue that holds families, and society, together. So many of us are unmoored, disconnected by a cultural emphasis on radical individualism, and are now wayfinding, seeking a rerooting to people and place. Rediscovering the diversity of connection that already exists among us—has indeed been here all along—is some powerful medicine.
With that, I would love to hear your recommendations for future reading, both non-fiction and fiction (although with an emphasis on fiction because that seems hard to find), that highlight Indigenous perspectives or ancestral cultural practices, especially those that relate to our family connections or ways of living in relation to the natural world. Beyond writing these kinds of works, I think it’s so important to surface the works of others, to increase their visibility so we can all benefit from them.
Gina: Thank you for that super beautiful question! There’s so many amazing Indigenous writers to choose from. I personally love and live off of the poetry of Peter Bluecloud (Mohawk). Bear: A Totem Dance as Seen by Raven is a personal favorite. I greatly admire the storytelling of Louise Erdrich (Chippewa), particularly the way that she brings to life friendship, loss, and family in The Roundhouse. Māori author, Witi Ihimaera’s The Uncle’s Story is so hard-hitting, so moving. The novel absolutely changed the way that I love.
I look for writing that calls forward your tears, that hits you hard and alters you so profoundly that you’re never the same. Other authors that I adore include Kai Carlson Wee (look for Bracken), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), and Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), each of which consider our non-human relations, our duties and roles to our families, ancestors, and most importantly, our commitment to those within our collective humanity that we may not yet know or understand.
Thank you so much, mahalo nui no koʻu naʻau, for your lovely questions and for your time, Sue, it was an absolute pleasure chatting with you!
Read By the Skin of Your Teeth and Seven Sisters, alongside the other stories from Imagine 2200, Fix’s climate-fiction contest, recognizes stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, imagining intersectional worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope. Read all 12 stories here.
Gina McGuire (she/her) is pursuing a PhD in geography and environment at the University of Hawaiʻi, where she considers the well-being of rural coasts from the lens of Hawaiian healing praxis. Her work has been published in Trouble the Waters: Tales From the Deep Blue, Yellow Medicine Review, “But When You Come from Water”, and We Are Ocean People: Indigenous Leadership in Marine Conservation, and she is the 2021 winner of the Imagining Indigenous Futurisms Award. Her writing and research are grounded in her love for Indigenous lands and persons (human and nonhuman), and in aloha for her ancestors.
Susan Kaye Quinn (she/her) is an environmental engineer turned science-fiction writer currently residing in Pittsburgh and dreaming of a better future through her hopepunk climate fiction. Her self-published novels have been optioned for virtual reality, translated into German and French, and featured in several anthologies.
In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Bren Macdibble shares an extract from How to Bee about the character hand-catching pests to feed to her chickens:
Kids are the best at pest catching, small hands, good eyes, fast and good at climbing. Me and Mags with our five chooks, we're a good team. The chooks keep us fed with eggs, all from the pests we feed them. I dunno how people fed chooks from before when they poisoned the pests.
The farm's full of circles. Bees, flowers, fruit. Pests, chooks, eggs. People, bees, flowers, fruit, pests, chooks, eggs, people... all overlapping circles. I don't understand how it went before the famine. Poison? That's like cutting the circles right through the middle. The circle can't go nowhere but a dead end. No wonder the little bees stopped working and left us to starve.
Rewilding Britain helps replant hedgerows in the UK to provide pollinators with fertiliser and pesticide free variety in the food of pollinators.